The young-adult novel adaptation is dead. Long live the young-adult novel adaptation!
Twilight, mercifully, has been put out to pasture, but another very similar set of circumstances stands ready to take its place. Beautiful Creatures switches the roles ever so slightly: It's not girl-falls-for-vampire; it's boy-falls-for-witch. And it could be easily dismissed for that or for several other reasons.
However, Beautiful Creatures has a lot more charm than Twilight. Maybe it's the South Carolina setting or the locked-in performance by Alden Ehrenreich, but Beautiful Creatures is mostly OK. Yeah, it's still silly and schmaltzy and the visual effects look like something the CW network would reject, but none of them turn out to be deal-breakers.
Things do not begin well, however. Beautiful Creatures suffers from the curse of the disappearing narrator: A lot of back story is introduced with a voice-over by Ethan (Ehrenreich) describing how backward his (fictional) hometown is. But after the setup, Ethan's narration vanishes. That's bad form. Narrators usually are, of course, because they primarily just take the place of back story woven through the dialogue of the characters.
Beautiful Creatures rounds slightly into shape when Ethan meets Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert). She's a witch, or as she tells us they're called, a "caster." Her family is rumored around these parts to be Satanists, including her reclusive uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons). For a family secret that has local roots in the Civil War, Lena spills the beans pretty quickly, telling Ethan at least part of her unusual story before their first kiss.
The Duchannes clan keeps to itself and Lena had spent her formative years far, far away. Turns out, all this hiding is supposed to protect the teenager from her evil aunt Sarafine (Emma Thompson), who wants to convert Lena to the dark side on her 16th birthday. There's some rite of passage among female casters that reveals their true nature on their Sweet Sixteen. Nobody's quite sure which predetermined way Lena will go, but if Sarafine has her way, all hell could break loose.
Again, very silly. And the witching is even more unfortunate because it looks so bad whenever a spell is conjured. There are a couple of requisite scenes where caster battles caster and it's uneventful each time. Otherwise, Beautiful Creatures wisely plays up its campy elements. Irons, an expert scene chewer, goes back for seconds and thirds. And Thompson, who's usually great no matter what she's performing in, has some vampy evil moments. They all but walk away with the movie, and that's probably why they were hired. Viola Davis, the film's other heavy hitter, is wasted as some kind of protector of all the casters' secrets, reduced to providing exposition. Perhaps her role is larger or can be better understood in the sequels.
After a slew of teen vampire movies that generated zero chemistry even though the leads were an item off-screen, it's refreshing to see Englert and Ehrenreich, who feel and look fairly typical. They're not startlingly attractive, they don't appear prepackaged, and both actors seem genuinely invested in their performances. They also play off each other well, even if they're not exactly performing death-defying feats of acting.
Beautiful Creatures, more than any of the Twilight films, understands it is entertainment. That series took itself so seriously and never got the joke about itself that the audience was in on. Beautiful Creatures leverages its preposterous nature to its advantage. It knows how daffy this idea is, and you can almost see the film roll its eyes along with the audience from time to time. In short: It's not trying to be Romeo and Juliet. And while it's not nearly as good or as driven as The Hunger Games, it's certainly better than expected.